Movie 93: Greed
Manly Footwear: I both knew and did not know what to expect from Greed. I knew it was a tragedy, and that the making and subsequent mangling of the 10 hour long original cut was also a tragedy, and that there were at least 2 semi-restored versions, one that was 4 hours, the other 2. I knew it was many a critic’s list of great films, and that it was silent. All this knowledge circled a void, any inkling of what the experience of watching it would provide, so I felt distinctly off-kilter when sitting down to watch the 2 hour version. The fact that Comfortina and I watched it streamed on Vimeo, Chromecast to our TV, with a soundtrack supplied by New Orleans odd-orchestra Asphalt Serenade, a recording of a live performance they did accompanying the movie in 2018, made the whole experience even more strange: a movie from 1924, parsed into binary code, flying across my living room from one device to another.
Then the film started, and I forgot all that crap. The greatness of Greed, even in this reconstructed form, is evident throughout, from the variety of innovative camera techniques to the attention to detail in set designs, to the (frankly horrifying) story itself worked together, with the sort of nearly invisible intentionality that all great art possesses. Von Stroheim’s vision and control are strong enough that they are not noticeable unless one looks for it, if that makes any sense.
The period details were fascinating, and apparently quite accurate, too, which is not a given, despite the age of the film. When the two main characters, John and Trina, get married, there are chalk outlines on the floor to show everyone where to stand, and all the men smoke these very totemic porcelain pipes, which was apparently the fashion in the late 19th century. I read the novel McTeague, on which Greed is based, 20 years ago or so, long enough that I forgot most of the novel, but I remembered the pipes, and the scene where McTeague smashes John’s pipe made me gasp.
And the final scene—two men cuffed to one another beside a dead donkey, a sack of coins, and a canteen with a bullet-hole in it, in Death Valley—well, it keeps popping into my head at the strangest times. If it was meant as an admonishment to humanity and our propensity for greed (and surely it was), damn, what a success.
This 1928 silent film about how coveting things and people corrupts one’s life left indelible stains on my memory.
John is a gentle soul who’s lot is to be a miner until his mother implores a traveling dentist to take him on as an apprentice in an attempt to save him from the short, harsh life his father had. John then meets Marcus, and they become fast friends. Marcus’s cousin and supposed sweetheart, Trina Snipe, breaks a tooth and ends up in John’s chair.
John becomes smitten with Trina as he works on his tooth over several sessions. He can’t stop thinking about her and begins to believe he’s in love with her. He confronts Marcus with this admission and begs Marcus to release her to him. After much haranguing, Marcus agrees and introduces John to Trina’s family.
Trina doesn’t seem to want to marry anyone – she’s got some income from making toys for her uncle’s store and tells John she doesn’t love him enough to marry him. John is persistent and finally gets her to agree to marry him.
On their wedding day, Trina wins a lottery of $5,000. Not wanting to waste it, she invests in her uncle’s store and gets interest payments monthly from the investment. Clouded by her new fortune, Trina becomes more and more miserly and begins to lie to John about the household expenses as she cuts more and more corners and hoards the savings in her trunk. She goes as far as stealing from John’s pockets when he falls asleep.
Marcus is miffed when he learns of Trina’s windfall as he feels he should be entitled to part of her fortune. As retribution, he calls the state regulatory board and tells them John is practicing dentistry without a license and then heads West to become a cattle rancher. John is give a cease and desist order from the state and his fortunes turn for the worst.
John’s attempts at finding work are thwarted again and again and he falls into despair and drink. Trina harps and harps and harps on him and continues to lie and hoard her money. Finally, John leaves one day and doesn’t return. Trina eventually goes searching for him only to return home to find he’s stolen her hoard from the trunk.
Trina calls in the investment from her uncle and moves to a new apartment with her gold. John, beaten and broken, finds her and murders her for the money.
John goes north to prospect, hide, and add to his gold hoard. His past follows him as the wanted posters begin to appear. Marcus sees one and joins the posse organized to bring John in. John senses he’s being pursued and flees into Death Valley in an attempt to escape with the money. Marcus gives chase even as the rest of the posse drops out.
The confrontation that ensues is the culmination of the all the coveting that has gone on throughout the film – not just of money but of people and status and lifestyles. Two men fighting over a fortune they both somehow believe they were entitled to simply based on proximity and no one wanting to use the money to better their circumstances but instead wanting the security and stability the gold represented.
The final scene of a dead horse, an empty canteen, spilled gold, and a man shackled to a corpse under an unrelenting sun is one viewers won’t forget.
This file was extremely effective in showing the madness and depravity that come from greed. As characters began to covet things, they became wilder in appearance and behavior. Teeth gnashing, hair pulling, and pale, sweaty faces showed the physical manifestation of greed. John lost his gentleness, Trina her beauty and sanity, Marcus his stability, and eventually, all lost their lives and the gold carried on.